While Brian Knappenberger was working on a documentary about a billionaire trying to deep-six a national news website, he came across a different billionaire who also was critical of media coverage — specifically, reporting in Idaho about sexual abuse, the Boy Scouts of America and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
After Knappenberger met one of the Idaho sex abuse victims, Adam Steed, the filmmaker decided to break out the second story from the first one. “I just was blown away by him,” Knappenberger said. “... I understood instantly this was a film about Adam, more than anything.”
Knappenberger’s film about Steed’s accusations against a Boy Scout leader in Idaho Falls, “Church and the Fourth Estate,” will debut Sunday in Park City at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
In the documentary, Knappenberger follows Steed’s story of sexual assault by a counselor at an Idaho Falls Boy Scout camp, a facility owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which sponsored most of the Scout troops in the area. Ultimately, the man was sent to jail for five months and put on parole for 15 years. In court, he admitted to molesting 24 boys.
In the film, Steed and others argue that the church’s local lay leadership helped cover up the man’s crimes by handling accusations through church discipline rather than by going to the police.
Knappenberger said he requested an interview with a representative of the church, but was declined. Daniel Woodruff, a spokesman for the church, said officials at the church’s Salt Lake City headquarters only recently learned about the film.
“Regardless, our hearts ache for all survivors of abuse,” Woodruff said in a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune. “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has zero tolerance for abusive behavior of any kind, and we are committed to addressing these incidents wherever they are found. Protecting victims and ensuring proper reporting is our top priority.”
Knappenberger learned about the Idaho Falls story while researching “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press,” a feature-length documentary that premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. The film, which can be streamed on Netflix, focuses on the defamation case filed by ex-wrestler Hulk Hogan (real name: Terry Bollea) against the company that owned the news site Gawker, over the site’s publication of a sex tape in which Hogan appeared.
“Nobody Speak” delved into the case, particularly the financial and legal support Hogan received from Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal. Subjects in the film opined that Thiel’s aim was to destroy Gawker, as revenge for the site outing him as gay in 2007. Knappenberger’s film argued that Thiel represented a growing trend of rich people using their clout to stifle journalism. (The movie premiered days after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, who was presented as another example of the trend.)
While researching the film, Knappenberger and his team read about Frank VanderSloot, the billionaire founder and CEO of Melaleuca, a company based in Idaho Falls that sells nutritional supplements, cleaning supplies and personal-care products. Melaleuca is often classified as a multilevel marketing company, though the company prefers the term “consumer direct marketing.”
In 2005, the newspaper in Idaho Falls, the Post Register, published a series of articles about sexual assault accusations against Scout leaders, focusing mainly on the man accused by Steed in 1997. VanderSloot — who, the movie notes, is a Latter-day Saint and a backer of the Boy Scouts — took out full-page ads in the paper to challenge the Post Register’s reporting.
The ads got personal, noting the lead reporter is gay. (In a later legal dispute with Mother Jones, also mentioned in the new film, VanderSloot’s lawyers insisted that the ads merely repeated information that was already known in Idaho Falls.)
VanderSloot is a tangential figure in “Church and the Fourth Estate” — though Knappenberger said he did request an interview but balked at what he called “unrealistic demands” made by the billionaire’s legal team.
VanderSloot had not heard about the documentary until informed about it by The Tribune. In an interview, he was adamant that perpetrators of sexual assault against children should be brought to justice.
“Pedophilia is horrible. I think it does permanent, unbelievable damage to people,” VanderSloot said. “I believe that pedophiles need to be held accountable. And I believe that people that protect it or hide it or cover it up also need to be held accountable, to the max.”
Though he touches on VanderSloot’s objections to the Post Register’s work, Knappenberger puts the focus on Steed’s story, and the question of the culpability of the Boy Scouts and the church.
“Both the church and the Scouts are at fault here,” Knappenberger said. “I think the church has a sort of pattern of covering up this abuse, of not going to authorities when they learn about this stuff, of sending perpetrators to bishops and having bishops have talks with them to determine if they’ve repented, and then sending them back. And that process is very secretive, often kept in secret from the family of the victims.”
As for the Scouts, Knappenberger interviewed journalists about Scouting’s “ineligible volunteer files” — also known as the “red flag files” or “perversion files” — that detailed thousands of Scout leaders accused of abusing boys. One chilling statistic mentioned in the film: The occurrence of sexual abuse in Scouting, experts have said, is several times higher than that in the Catholic Church.
“There’s every indication that this goes back right to the beginning of the Boy Scouts, in 1910,” Knappenberger said. “Time and time again, they chose secrecy over safety. They squandered any kind of claim they had toward moral leadership.”
In a recent statement, the Boy Scouts of America apologized to those harmed during their time in Scouting, expressed outrage “that there have been times when individuals took advantage of our program to abuse innocent children,” and explained what the organization does for victims and prevention today.
The LDS Church announced last May that it would start its own youth program and cut ties with the Boy Scouts of America, partly because of Scouting’s policy changes to allow girls in its ranks and LGBTQ people as leaders. The move will be a blow to Scouting, Knappenerger said, because the church was one of the organization’s largest backers.
Another blow is a move nationally to remove the statute of limitations for sexual abuse cases like Steed’s. Knappenberger expects a wave of lawsuits by accusers, and believes the Boy Scouts may soon go bankrupt because of people like Steed coming forward.
“I hope Adam’s courage is contagious,” Knappenberger said.
“CHURCH AND THE FOURTH ESTATE”
The 40-minute documentary screens in the Documentary Shorts Program 2 at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It screens:
• Sunday, Jan. 26, noon, Temple Theatre, Park City.
• Monday, Jan. 27, 9:30 p.m., Redstone Cinema 1, Park City.
• Thursday, Jan. 30, noon, Park Avenue Theatre, Park City.
• Saturday, Feb. 1, 9 p.m., Tower Theatre, Salt Lake City.